ROSS William 1896 – 1918

WILLIAM ROSS 1896 – 1918

24483 Private William Ross, 15th Battalion, The Durham Light Infantry was killed in action 29 May 1918, aged 21.  He is commemorated on the Soissons Memorial, France[1] and the Witton Park war memorials.

Family Details

William Ross was born 1896 [2] at Bishop Auckland, the son of John and Jane Ann Ross.  They had 7 children, all born at Bishop Auckland, except James: [3]

  • William born 1896 
  • Mary bc.1900
  • John bc.1902
  • Thomas born 9 November 1904
  • James born 29 July 1907 at Witton Park
  • Patrick born 25 April 1910
  • Isabella born 14 March 1913

In 1901, John and Jane lived at Town Head, Bishop Auckland with their 2 children, William and Mary.  John worked as a, “hawker” dealing in fruit.[4]  In 1911, they family still lived at Town Head, Bishop Auckland and 33 years old John was still employed as a, “hawker – fruit”.[5]  Later, Jane lived at White Cottages, Newton Cap Bank, Bishop Auckland, Ross Yard, Town Head, Bishop Auckland and the Pump Yard, Woodside, Witton Park.[6]

William’s father serving as 24908 Private John Ross, 1st Garrison Battalion, the Northumberland Fusiliers died of nephritis whilst aboard the HMHS “Formosa” and was buried at sea, 3 January 1918.  He was about 41 years of age and is commemorated on the Hollybrook Memorial, Southampton. [7]

Military Details

The service details of Private William Ross have not been traced.  William Ross enlisted at Barnard Castle and joined the 15th Battalion, The Durham Light Infantry and was allocated the service number 24483.[8]  It is probable that 3 lads from Witton Park, Archibald Murrow, William Ross and Rupert Nary enlisted together since their service numbers are very close together, 24481, 24483 and 24493.[9]

DLI Cap Badge

The 15th (Service) Battalion was formed at Newcastle in September 1914 as part of K3 Kitchener’s New Army and came under orders of 64th Brigade, 21st Division.  The following units served with the 64th Brigade:

  • 9th Battalion, the King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry
  • 10th Battalion, the King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry
  • 14th Battalion, Durham Light Infantry (left November 1915)
  • 15th Battalion, Durham Light Infantry [15/DLI]
  • 1st Battalion, the East Yorkshire Regiment (joined November 1915)
  • 64th Machine Gun Company
  • 64th Trench Mortar Battery

The 21st Division landed in Boulogne 11 September 1915.[10] It was immediately thrust into action at the Battle of Loos.  It remained on the Western Front for the duration of the war being involved in the following engagements – 1916 the Battle of the Somme, 1917 the German retreat to the Hindenburg Line, the Arras Offensive and the Third Battle of Ypres, more commonly known as Passchendaele.

9 October 1915, Private William Ross entered France[11] in a draft to reinforce the battalion numbers due to losses at the Battle of Loos, 25 September.  By late 1917, he would have been an experienced campaigner having seen action at the Somme, Arras and Passchendaele.  A report dated 7 November 1917 indicates that Private William Ross was wounded and entitled to wear a “Wound Stripe”.[12]  It is presumed that this may have resulted from action during October when the last tour on this battlefront cost 15/DLI over 60 casualties.[13] Later research records that between 20 October and 1 November 1917, 15/DLI lost 28 other ranks killed in action or died of wounds.[14]

The next major battles were associated with the much anticipated German Spring Offensive.  The 21st Division saw action at the Battle of St. Quentin and the First Battle of Bapaume, the Battles of the Lys, the Battles of the Aisne, Albert and the Second Battle of Bapaume, the Battles for the Hindenburg Line and the Battle of the Selle, a phase of the Final Advance in Picardy. The Division ceased to exist 19 May 1919.[15] 

The following account will provide background and the circumstances surrounding the death of Private William Ross.

The German Offensive, Spring 1918: an overview [16]

3 March, Soviet Russia made peace with Germany and her allies by virtue of the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk.  As a result, Germany could now transfer troops from the Eastern Front to the Western Front.  More importantly, these Divisions included the original elite of the German Army – the Guards, Jagers, Prussians, Swabians and the best of the Bavarians. In all, 192 Divisions could be deployed in the West.  The Allies could field 178 Divisions.  A single division numbered about 19,000 men.  Ludendorff could call upon about 3,650,000 men as opposed to the Allies 3,380,000.  Thus, the Germans now held superiority in numbers.  

The German High Command needed victory to be gained before the American Forces arrived in Europe in huge numbers.  America entered the war 6 April 1917 and in the July, Pershing General of the Armies of the United States asked for an army of 3 million men.  The first of her troops arrived in France 26 June 1917.  The training and build-up of troops obviously took time but eventually by June 1918, the Americans were receiving about 250,000 men a month in France.  This amounted to 25 divisions in or behind the battle zone and another 55 in the United States ready to join the action.

Elsewhere in the Alliance, the French were able to draw on a new annual class of conscripts after a year of inactivity but the British were worn down by continuous fighting during the summer of 1917 with major offensives at Arras, Messines, Passchendaele and Cambrai.  The strength of the British infantry had fallen from 754,000 in July 1917 to 543,000 in June 1918 producing a manpower crisis.

21 March 1918:  the German Offensive was launched.  There were 5 phases:

  • 21 March – 5 April: Operation Michael, against the British, the Battle of Picardy (otherwise known as the First Battle of the Somme 1918)
  • 9 – 11 April: Operation Georgette, against the British, the Battle of Lys sector near Armentieres
  • 27 April: Operation Blucher-Yorck, against the French sector along Chemin des Dames, the Third Battle of Aisne
  • 9 June: Operation Gneisenau, against the French sector between Noyan and Montdider, the Battle of the Matz
  • 15 – 17 July: Operation Marne-Rheims, the final phase known as the Second Battle of the Marne.

The Germans enjoyed spectacular territorial gains particularly during the initial phases of the offensive.  23 March, the Kaiser declared a “victory holiday” for German schoolchildren.  The cost in manpower was enormous:

  • Between 21 March and 10 April the 3 main assaulting armies had lost 303,450 men – 1/5th of their original strength.
  • The April offensive against the British in Flanders was eventually computed to have cost 120,000 men out of a total of 800,000.

The German High Command calculated that it required 200,000 replacements each month but only 300,000 recruits stood available taking into account the next annual class of 18-year olds.  There were 70,000 convalescents available from hospitals each month but even counting them, the strength of the German Army had fallen from 5.1 million to 4.2 million men in the 6 months of the offensive.  It could not be increased on the estimated scale required. To add to this dilemma, in June 1918, the first outbreak of “Spanish Flu” laid low nearly 500,000 German soldiers.  This epidemic was to reoccur in the autumn and wreak havoc throughout Europe and the wider world.

German troops suffered from poor diet, battle fatigue, discontentment with the military leadership, social unrest at home and a general realisation that their great effort was beginning to wane.  As a result, the Allies counter attack in mid-July began to seize the initiative.  Sweeping victories over demoralised German forces eventually led to the resignation of Ludendorff 27 October, the abdication of Kaiser Wilhelm II 9 November, and the signing of the Armistice 11 November 1918.

The Third Battle of the Aisne: 27 May – 6 June 1918

The general area of the offensive was to the north east of Paris and to the west of Rheims around the town of Soissons. French and British forces held the sector between Bouconville and Bermericourt. The 21st Division and the 50th (Northumbrian) Division which comprised the Territorial DLI battalions were heavily involved. The German attack was launched by 4,000 guns across a 40km front against 4 Divisions of the IX Corps.  There was a heavy concentration of British troops in the front line trenches and casualties from this bombardment were severe.  In fact, the IX Corps was virtually wiped out.  The bombardment was accompanied by a gas attack after which 17 German infantry divisions advanced through the gaps in the line.  Rapid progress was made and the Germans broke though the reserve troops (8 Allied Divisions – 4 British and 4 French) between Soissons and Rheims.  By the end of the first day, the Germans had passed the Aisne and reached the River Vesle, gaining 15km of territory.  By the 3rd June, they had come within 90km of Paris and captured 50,000 Allied soldiers and 800 guns.  French casualties were heavy, with 98,000 losses.  The British suffered 29,000 casualties.  The German attack succeeded in pushing the Allies across the Aisne down as far as the Marne at Chateau Thierry, capturing the towns of Soissons and Le Fere-en-Tardenois.  But by the 6th June, the German advance had run out of steam.

15/DLI in action[17]

4 May: Having received a large draft 168 ORs mainly young soldiers, 15/DLI entrained at St. Omer

6 May: the 15/DLI was billeted in the region of Olizt et Violaine:

13 May: 15/DLI relieved the 6th battalion 299th (Bayard) French Regiment in the line, 1 mile north of Loivre, on the Aisne & Marne canal to Berry-au-Bac.  

21 May: relieved and withdrew to a support position near the main road to Rheims.

22 May: in reserve at a camp at Chalons-le-Verguer. 

27 May, on the morning, 15/DLI and 3rd Dragoon Guards were at Cauroy-les-Hermonville in reserve to the 64th Brigade.  At 1.00am: heavy bombardment of mustard gas shells came down upon the camp.  15/DLI moved off in respirators to Cauroy: [18]

“At 10 am C company were sent forward to reinforce the 9/KOYLI but the Yorkshiremen had had to give ground and the German infantry were already on the main road…. B company pushed out on the left of the line and it was hoped to hold the Boyau de la Somme…. D company occupied the strong points Bon de la Cuve, Bon de la Lavoir, Redoubt Nord and Redoubt Central.

The Germans came on in determined fashion, supported by a fierce bombardment and pushed B company back to Avancee de Cauroy.  The Durhams counter-attacked with bombs and a bloody struggle was waged in these trenches on the outskirts of the village until the German numbers prevailed.  During the afternoon the enemy occupied part of Boyau de Beau Sejour and bombed his way into Avancee de Cauroy so that in spite of their desperate resistance B and C companies were forced back to the sunken road east of Redoubt Sud.  At 5.30pm the 97th Field Company RE arrived from Hermonville and reinforced the left flank on the light railway west of the village.  Two hours later came another onslaught in overwhelming strength and the British line was obliged to draw back to the road behind the village but the Germans tried in vain to debouch from Cauroy and desisted in their attempts as darkness fell.  On the right, the 15th still held some advance posts but soon after midnight came orders to withdraw.  This was done in darkness without hurry or confusion, for the Germans did not seem to be aware of the retirement.”

28 May: 15/DLI at camp at Luthernay Farm (in the Brigade reserve) 7.30am the Germans attacked with machine gun fire.  15/DLI withdrew to a position south east of Prouilly which was occupied by mixed units of the 64th Brigade.

29 May: the position came under heavy shell fire, no infantry attack.  15/DLI relieved by French troops and moved back to Rosnay.  15/DLI consisted of a mere 6 officers and 40 men in a composite unit under the command of Lieut.-Colonel W.N.S. Alexander, East Yorkshire and the withdrawal continued into the next day.

15/DLI war diary reported that between 27 and 29 May, the battalion sustained a total of 440 casualties:

  • 15 Officers: 7 wounded, 1 wounded and missing, 7 missing
  • 425 Other Ranks: 21 killed, 17 wounded, 100 wounded and missing, 287 missing.

30 May: 15/DLI moved back to Mery Premercy

31 May: camp at Chaltrait:[19]

“In heavy fighting of May 27th and 28th, the Fifteenth had lost 456 men in killed, wounded and missing, the heaviest casualties of the brigade…It was largely owing to the efforts of these officers [names given in an earlier paragraph] that the Fifteenth succeeded in checking the Germans advance at Cauroy and had fought such a splendid rear guard action on the following day.”

Later research confirms that between 27 May and the end of the month, at least 128 men of the 15/DLI were either killed in action or died of wounds: [20]

  • 27 May: 1 Officer and 28 Other Ranks
  • 28 May: 11 ORs  
  • 29 May: 1 Officer and 82 ORs including Private William Ross
  • 30 May: 1 OR
  • 31 May 4 ORs

Total: 2 Officers and 126 Other Ranks.

15/DLI survived and was brought up to strength once more to return to the trenches on the Somme near Hamel, 17 July and it continued to serve until the end of the war.

19 July 1918, a report stated that Private William Ross was, “Missing”.[21] No doubt his mother was informed and hoped that he may have been taken as a prisoner of war.  She had already lost her husband.  That was not the case and he was presumed dead.

15/DLI lost a total of 1508 men during the course of the war, more than any other DLI Battalion.[22]

Medals and Awards

Private William Ross was awarded the 1914-15 Star, the Victory and British War medals.[23]

Medal Roll Card Index


Private William Ross is commemorated on the Soissons Memorial commemorates almost 4,000 officers and men of the United Kingdom who died during the Battles of the Aisne and the Marne in 1918 and who have no known grave.[24] 

The Soissons Memorial


Private William Ross’ mother Jane Ross received his effects.[25]


William Ross was born in 1896, the oldest son of John and Jane Ross.  The family lived at Bishop Auckland, Newton Cap and Woodside.  William enlisted as a Kitchener volunteer into the 15th Battalion, the Durham Light Infantry and saw action on the Somme in 1916, Arras and being wounded at Passchendaele in 1917 before the Germans mounted the great Spring Offensive of 1918 designed to crush the British forces before the arrival of the Americans.  Private William Ross was killed in action 29 May 1918 at the Battle of the Aisne in France.  He has no known grave and is commemorated on the Soissons Memorial. 

William’s father serving as 24908 Private John Ross, 1st Garrison Battalion, the Northumberland Fusiliers died of nephritis whilst aboard the HMHS “Formosa”, 3 January 1918, aged about 41.  He was buried at sea and is commemorated on the Hollybrook Memorial, Southampton. 


[1] Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC)

[2] England & Wales Birth Index 1837-1915 Vol.10a p.235 Auckland 1896 Q4

[3] 1901, 1911 census & Pension Claimant card index

[4] 1901 census

[5] 1911 census

[6] Pension Claimant card index associated with her husband John Ross and her son William Ross

[7] Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC)

[8] Soldiers Died in the Great War (SDGW)

[9] Roll of individuals entitled to the 1914-15 Star dated 17 October 1919 & Roll of individuals entitled to the Victory and British War medals dated 23 April 1920


[11] Medal Roll card index

[12] Forces War Records NLS 1917_WList15 War Office Daily List No.5410 report date 07/11/1917

[13] “The Durham Forces in the Field 1914-18: The Service Battalions of the Durham Light Infantry” 1920 Captain Wilfred Miles p.197

[14] ODGW & SDGW


[16] Various sources including,, “The First World War” Keegan J. 1999, “First World War” Gilbert M. 1994, “The IWM Book of 1918 Year of Victory” Brown M. 1998.

[17] 15/DLI War Diary & Miles various pages

[18] Miles p.300-302

[19] Miles p.303

[20] “Soldiers Died in the Great War” and “Officers Died in the Great War”

[21] Forces War Records NLS 1918_WList51 War Office Daily List No.5622 report dated 19/07/1918

[22] “Faithfull: The Story of the Durham Light Infantry” 1962 S.G.P. Ward p.446

[23] Medal Roll card index, Roll of individuals entitled to the 1914-15 Star dated 17 October 1919 & Roll of individuals entitled to the Victory and British War medals dated 23 April 1920

[24] Commonwealth War Graves Commission

[25] UK Army Register of Soldiers’ Effects 1901-1929 Record No.926210